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"Disclosure," You Say? Depends on What You Mean

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Sarah Buys a House chronicles Sarah DeGiorgis' journey along the road to becoming a property owner in West Philadelphia. If you have any tips or questions for Sarah, ping our tipline:

Given the condition of the house I made an offer on, I had been looking forward to reading the seller's disclosure to get answers to some of my questions. Apparently, that's not how it works. There were a lot of boxes that were checked "Unknown," and there were some fields that were just left blank. I asked my buyer's agent about it, and she said the seller's disclosure is really only "to the best of their knowledge" and shouldn't be taken as fact. Like it's not a substitute for the actual inspection, which is when a professional will spend two hours going over every part of the house (roof, electrical, plumbing, paint, radon and termites.)

The seller's disclosure always leaves the option of checking "unknown" because there really are times when a seller won't know. And if a seller were to guess at the electrical system and they guessed wrong, that could stop the whole deal, whereas if they say they don't know they can't be accused of lying on the disclosure. My buyer's agent said this is fairly typical for just that reason: Sellers don't want to be accused of falsifying information.

This kind of makes more sense when you also realize the buyer presents the seller with what is called a buyer's sheet that is a very broad overview of your finances: how much you have in the bank (no acct numbers), your income, your credit and how much debt you have. So the buyer gets to see the house and the seller's disclosure and the seller gets to decide if the buyer actually has the resources for the deal to go through. Because, in the end, this is still just an offer and the deal isn't actually finished until closing.

The best way to get real information about the house's condition is to get an inspection, which I did. I'll give you the lowdown on Friday.